Tapestry

Prayer cards and panic attacks: how praying to a 7th-century princess helped me overcome my fear of flying

At first glance, the life of a seventh-century teenaged Irish princess doesn’t bear much resemblance to our 21st century reality. But when writer Anne Thériault discovered St. Dymphna, she found a connection she didn’t expect… and it changed her life.
Writer Anne Thériault with her St. Dymphna prayer card and medallion. (Sinisa Jolic /CBC)
Listen15:24

Writer Anne Thériault had always been interested in the lives of the saints. 

"I find saints really fascinating. I find especially the women saints really fascinating because they're held up as these ideal women, but so often they are not adhering to traditional feminine gender roles."

The Legend of St. Dymphna

St. Dymphna was a seventh-century princess in Ireland. Her father Damon, was a Celtic pagan. He ruled a small kingdom called Oriel in what is now Northern Ireland. Her mother was a Christian, Christianity having been introduced to Ireland by St. Patrick approximately 150 years before.  

Her parents had a happy marriage until her mother fell ill and died. Dymphna was fourteen. Upon her mother's death, she decided to devote herself to Christianity as a nun.

Her father fell into a deep depression when his wife died. Damon refused to see anyone or leave his room. His advisors eventually pressed him to look for a new wife. He agreed to do so, as long as she was as beautiful, as accomplished and as good as his first wife. 

When Damon was unable to find a suitor that compared to his wife, he turned his eye to his daughter and became obsessed with the idea of marrying her. Dymphna was horrified and recoiled, but cleverly asked her father for 40 days to think it over. She took that opportunity to flee. Dymphna stole some of her father's gold and escaped with her confessor, Father Gerebern. They took a boat to Europe and travelled until they reached a town called Geel, in present-day Belgium.

There, she used her money to establish a hospice for the poor and mentally ill people of the village. But news of Irish gold coins being spent in Geel spread and her father's soldiers were able to track her down. Damon travels to Geel and demands once again that his daughter marry him. She refuses. He threatens to behead her if she doesn't, but she still refuses.True to his word, Damon beheaded his daughter Dymphna along with her confessor.

It is said that her first miracle occurred then, when some mentally-ill men who witnessed her death were instantly cured. A church was built in her name and the tradition of aiding the mentally-ill is still a priority in the town of Geel today. 

St. Dymphna is the patron saint for the mentally ill, nervous disorders, and victims of incest.

Her feast day is May 15.

(Sinisa Jolic / CBC)

Thériault had a particular interest in St. Dymphna, who'd she first heard about in Anne-Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees. Years later, when visiting a cathedral in New Orleans, Thériault came upon a medallion for St. Dymphna, and wore it for personal inspiration. 

"I started praying to her. I had a very difficult period with my mental health in 2017 and I ended up in the hospital. It was very comforting to have this idea of someone to pray to, to unload my griefs on, outside of just writing in a diary, and not be judged by.

And I also thought, 'Gosh, if she could overcome her father's terrible treatment of her, if she could do this incredibly brave thing and leave, and start her own business — she overcame all of that under the kind of strict gender structures of the 7th century? Then I can get through this."

Prayer in honour of St. Dymphna

Lord, our God,
you graciously chose St. Dymphna
as patroness of those afflicted with mental
and nervous disorders.
She is thus an inspiration
and a symbol of charity
to the thousands who ask her intercession.

Please grant, Lord,
through the prayers of this pure youthful martyr,
relief and consolation to all suffering such trials,
and especially those for whom we pray.

(Here you mention those for whom you wish to pray.)

We beg You, Lord,
to hear the prayers of St. Dymphna on our behalf.
Grant all those for whom we pray
patience in their sufferings
and resignation to Your divine will.
Please fill them with hope,
and grant them the relief and cure they so much desire.

We ask this through Christ our Lord
Who suffered agony in the garden.

Amen.

Thériault was asked to write about the radical mental health programs in Geel, Belgium for Broadview magazine. Her editor asked if she wanted to travel there.

"And I was like, 'Oh, I don't really think that's in the cards.' I have a horrible fear of flying. I hadn't flown in ten years at that point. The last time I'd flown was in 2009, but I thought, 'I won't say that.'"

Thériault submitted a budget for the trip, thinking it was a long shot and she probably wouldn't have to confront her fear of flying. To her surprise, the trip was greenlit — and Thériault found herself having to get on a plane again.

"I was really terrified. I was terrified I would get to the airport and not be able to get on the plane. I was terrified about being on the plane. I had like a range of fears and I kind of started joking, saying, 'It's like I'm on a mission from God and God wants me to do this. And St. Dymphna wants me to go to Belgium and write about her, so she won't let anything bad happen to me on the plane. Basically, I'm in God's hands.'"

During the flight, Thériault recited the prayer on the back of her St. Dymphna prayer card "like a mantra." 

"Maybe it was divine aid, but also I think sometimes we just need something to believe in to get us through difficult times," Thériault said.